Broken Symmetry

Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twentt-First Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 2:8-15
Jeremiah 29:1,4-7
Luke 17:11-19

The real trouble with this world of ours, says G. K. Chesterton, is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. “It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

Chesterton imagines that if a mathematical creature from outer space saw a human body, he would at once assume that the human body is a duplicate. That is, a person is really two people: the one on the right resembling exactly the one on the left. An arm on the right, one on the left; a leg on the right and a leg on the left; the same number of fingers at the end of each arm, the same number of toes. Twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, even twin lobes of the brain.

So when the creature found a heart on one side, he would obviously deduce that there was a heart on the other side. And just when the visitor thought he was most right, says Chesterton, he would be most wrong. Chesterton calls it “this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything” (Orthodoxy, p. 81).

Symmetry is a balance of proportions and the beauty of a form arising from that balance. Social scientists speak of homeostasis and composers rely on rest chords. Scripture is full of such symmetry. “If…then” connections abound:

If you obey my word, you will live a long and prosperous life in the land which I will give you, but if you do not obey…

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.

If you forgive others, your heavenly father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, your heavenly father will not forgive you.

The hymn quoted in this week’s 2 Timothy passage has that kind of rhythmic character and parallel structure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

If we endure, we will also reign with him;

If we deny him, he will also deny us;

If you do “A,” then “B.” Balance, proportion, clarity. We need that in order to live, and we have it here. The saying is trustworthy and sure. You can count on it.

Then comes the fourth line:

If we are faithless…

Symmetry demands that the next phrase be “then he will also be faithless.” but that’s not how the song goes. “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful.” The addition of another line throws things even further out of balance: “for he cannot deny himself.” Symmetry breaks down and Gospel breaks through.

Some Bible commentators interpret this hymn to say, “If we are faithless, then God must be faithful to his justice, and therefore he has to reject us because of our faithlessness.” They say you have to interpret the hymn that way in order to be consistent with the previous lines.

It is true that our Lord himself said, “Whoever acknowledges me before people I will also acknowledge them before my Father in heaven. But whoever does not acknowledge me, I will deny.” This is serious business. It matters what we do. It matters what we do. Our actions have consequences. “If you do this, then this…” This is the order of a moral universe.

Life, however, is more than an equation of performance and reward. “The mystery of iniquity” refuses to fit neatly into any formula. And there’s something else: a reality that is straining against our too-obvious notions, like the ocean against a dike.

What happens after the inevitable consequences of our denials of God and our failures to endure? What happens after the balance is broken and the fellowship is ruptured?

The baptism hymn in 2 Timothy proclaims that the symmetry has been shattered from God’s side. At the heart of things is this: “if we are faithless, God will remain faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit is right: Jesus really has “thown (sic) everything off balance.”

Speaking such a momentous truth, alas, can take on a tone that is all-too obvious and reasonable. Two other lectionary texts reveal a larger hiddenness, even wildness, of what God is up to in the world.

The first text is Jeremiah 29. As seen in last week’s Psalm (137), the experience of exile ignited vicious responses of fury and despair. The “if…then” equation of denial and lack of faithfulness proved devastatingly true. What now?

Jeremiah counsels the people of God to settle down for the long haul, build houses, plant gardens, and intermarry. More amazing still, he tells them to seek the welfare of the very places and people who forced them into exile.

This is a pivotal passage for John Howard Yoder’s narration of Scripture. The seventy years in Babylon were not “an hiatus,” “a detour,” or “a two-generational parenthesis,” after which “normalcy” resumed, “normalcy” meaning the royal theology and practice of territorial kingship [quotes from For the Nations].

Instead, the scattering was the beginning of a new identity and mission. Dispersion became the calling of the faith community. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to enter fully into their host culture. More than concern for “mere minority/subculture survival,” they were to contribute to the welfare of their host culture, even in enemy territory.

Yoder marvels at the awe-inspiring ways this has taken place in history, how the Jews became “socially effective…in the social interstices not controlled by the rulers.” Out of the “if…then” of inevitable consequences came a glimpse of God’s plan to heal the nations and bless the world through a people.

Needless to say, this reading of Scripture is of enormous importance in considering the social shape of God’s people during these infuriating days of government shut down. As far as I can tell, the command to “seek the welfare” is still in effect.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, somewhere “in the region between.” He hears the cry for mercy from a pack of lepers and sends them on their way with a command. Down the road of obedience they experience their healing. For nine of the lepers, their healing means a return to health and normalcy after a detour and parenthesis of illness. The tenth leper, though, runs back, praising God with a loud voice, and falls at the feet of Jesus.

As someone has said, he is the one who realizes that health is not the point, but the pointer. While no doubt grateful for the skilled dermatologist who healed their skin condition, the nine will most likely return to life as it was before their illness, back to “a pact with the powers already ruling the world” (Yoder). For the tenth leper, there is a new Power at the heart of things. The ocean has broken through the dike.

These passages call us down the road of obedience. They call us to the interstices, to the regions in between: between the clean and the unclean, the insured and the uninsured, the documented and the undocumented, the powerful and the powerless. It’s likely that such a call will bring us to the same place T. S. Eliot’s Magi found themselves after their journey to Jesus:

We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.

Even there – especially there – we are to settle into seeking the welfare of those around us by giving daily witness to the wildly asymmetrical news that if anyone is in Christ, there is a whole new world.

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